Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: 1356: A Novel

HARPERCOLLINS – @HarperCollins

AUTHOR: Bernard Cornwell
ISBN: 978-0-06-196967-6; hardcover (January 2013)
432pp, B&W, $28.99 U.S.

Bernard Cornwell is a British author of historical novels. Cornwell is best known for his cycle of novels starring Richard Sharpe, a rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars. This series was adapted into the Sharpe television movies.

1356: A Novel is Cornwell’s latest novel. This is the fifth book in Cornwell’s “The Grail Quest” series, which focuses on a 14th century English archer, Thomas of Hookton. 1356 is the first Hookton novel since Heretic (2003).

1356 is set in France. The story finds Thomas of Hookton leading a company of mercenary archers and ravaging the countryside of Gascony. Hookton must complete a crucial task before joining Edward, Prince of Wales, a real-life figure. He is now better known as the Black Prince and was the eldest son of King Edward III of England. In 1356, the Prince’s army will fight in what is known as the Battle of Poitiers, a real-life event. Fought on September 9, 1356, it was a major battle in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.

The novel opens in September 1356. In the besieged town of Carcassonne, Fra Ferdinand, a Black Friar, secretly finds La Malice, a legendary sword shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that the sword could decide the outcome of a war.

Across France, the English army is destroying, when it isn’t plundering and raping. Towns close their gates, and the countryside stands alert for danger. The French army and its Scottish allies, embittered by the defeats handed to them by the English, await the order of King Jean of France to start a war. Is the French King, however, ready to fight the Black Prince and his forces?

Meanwhile, Thomas of Hookton (also known as le Bâtard) is determined to find La Malice. His quest for the sword will take him on a quest to unravel the mystery of an obscure saint. He will become embroiled in the tumultuous marriage of the violent, vindictive, and vulgar Count of LaBrouillade and his wife, Bertille. Thomas will find himself targeted by William, Lord of Douglas, a Scot who is in France specifically to fight the English, and Douglas’ allies, the ambitious Louis Bessières, Cardinal Archbishop of Livorno and Papal Legate to King Jean. With his wife and child in tow, Thomas leads his feared army of men-at-arms and archers, the Hellequin, on his greatest quest since his search to find the Holy Grail.

Without going into extravagant purple prose, Bernard Cornwell paints the world of 1356 to life. Although I had never before read one of his books, I found myself standing in the middle of walled towns under siege. The landscape of France, from vineyards to small valleys and hills were before my eyes. The attire and costumes and the armor and weaponry, all unfamiliar to me, sprang to life in my mind. It seems that Cornwell’s gift is to set a table, unfamiliar as it may be to readers, and make them feel welcomed.

There is a cover quote on 1356 from George R.R. Martin (the creator of A Game of Thrones) that reads, “Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present.” I haven’t read enough to agree with that, but I must admit that from strategy and troop movement to sword thrusts and intestines on the ground, Cornwell is the real deal. He does not do the empty-calorie manliness of Hollywood battle scenes that one might find in films like Braveheart and Gladiator (both good films). Cornwell gets to the heart of the matter – victory is survival, and some of those seven deadly sins are the fuel that drives a combatant to victory.

Still, I have higher praises for Cornwell and 1356. I really did not want this book to end. Whenever I returned to it, after having to stop reading, I felt like I was returning to old friends as soon as I opened the book. I was there, off to the side (of course), but watching everything. With 1356: A Novel, Bernard Cornwell takes the reader to another time and makes the reader never want to leave, no matter how bloody and gory the action becomes.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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